We live upon ruins. History is the progressive accumulation of ruin upon ruin. In the end, capitalism – that abstract monstrosity of a totality – would’ve been a machine for the production of ruins.
If I was to choose among the artworld elite, upon the transnational roll call of celebrity artists, then one of my favorite living artists would be Anselm Kiefer. Those who are familiar with his work can readily see his influence upon my own work, even if the themes and content may differ: his work influences my approach to forms, to the field of painting as an erosive plane, etc. Kiefer, born in the postwar era, grew up playing on the ruins of World War Two. In his work, ruins and the catastrophe of history have been a pervasive theme for decades. What he gets us all to remember is that all things will pass and those seemingly solid things around us today, from the infrastructures to ideologies, will soon be ruins themselves.
The world has changed a lot since 1945. I am in agreement with others on the point that the ‘end of the world’ already happened and, like a car coasting on empty, we’ve been running on the fumes ever since. Every kind of heinous crime, every kind of evil that humanity is capable of has already been tried. And to follow this theme of 1945, it is as if after that mega-event all that we had left to do was to eat up the world in a consumptive frenzy, to liberate all values in order to act out the roles of our own disappearance, to consummate the orgy of the end of history. Postmodern tosh, as they say. Is this the only route we are allowed to take nowadays – rather than imagining alternatives, we are only allowed to imagine the end of it all? The apocalyptic imagination runs deep.
And what is the apocalyptic anyway except, in its most obvious translation, a “revealing?” And what is exactly revealed? Is this not the orgy that Baudrillard spoke of? – The forced visibility of the world? Everything separated, killed in order to be studied one thing at a time. To what is this engine running towards? Its own ruin?
Kiefer allows us to see through the conduit of his art that the catastrophe has already occurred. Already in cities across the world, in places like Detroit – which hits a bit close to home – nature is taking back what is hers. It is absolutely amazing how fast things wither away if left unattended. It certainly smacks us on the face with the relativism of it all and gets us to confront our own disappearance, because for all of us time is pretty short. And then as we drift through the streets, going about our day as if all of what is around us is just going to last forever, we get this profound sense that we are already living on the ruins.
The current order of things is running from itself. At all costs, it must instill into the subjectivities that it cultivates this false sense that all of it can just keep going. It must present itself as a utopia outside of withering of time in order to give the illusion of a perpetuate feast. This is exactly what the advertising image does. It allows us to get lost on its presentation, to pretend that the goods or services it offers will be perpetual, and the stuff that it pushes shall flow liberally without dissipation. This is a dangerous point of view, which is instilled in us all everyday by the mass-media, because it pushes the reality of catastrophe, the real of the ruin, away from immediate awareness, inciting us to act without consequences.
I won’t pretend to have a viable solution but at least I know the problem. In my own artwork I find myself leaning evermore towards catastophism, not only as a means of having this notion arise in my own imagination, but equally as a means of using my art to confront death. – Perhaps this confrontation could be a ‘solution?’ It is the death that we are all running from, that the entire system runs from everyday, and which is inevitably going to catch us. So why run? Why not confront it now and be done with it, realize its profound truth, and then move on? Hence the contemporary relevance of the memento mori – a consistent theme throughout the history of art. We ought to be embracing its confrontation like Hamlet in the graveyard.
When I see a patch of grass creeping between the concrete, or when I see trees taking over a house, I get a sense of beauty. This beauty is not met in the face of wanting to see things destroyed – I am not a nihilist. I embrace the formation of values, even if they are ultimately built upon nothing, for the sake of creativity and the sense of affirming a life. The creeping flora evokes in me a sense of how fleeting this world is. Beauty is not found in those things which we (pretend) to think is enduring, but the exact opposite: it is in impermanence that beauty is discovered. It is precisely because a thing is set against the backdrop of its own disappearance that it becomes beautiful. – That it may be like this today and maybe tomorrow, but ultimately it will all be swept away. Isn’t this precisely the reason why beauty enters our lives, for example in memorable events, relationships, or places? Isn’t it precisely against the backdrop of its going-somewhere, never sitting still? And ultimately, even if within those events, relationships or places we may wish to ourselves that it would last forever, we secretly don’t believe it: we secretly know that its profundity is found in its impermanence and if we would’ve had it all, an enduring situation, it would quickly loose its charm.
Back to Anselm. I was discussing art and those I admire with an acquaintance, one Mr Glick – an epic potter – and he said to me, “So I was talking to Anselm one time and I asked him, why do they have to be so big?” – Referring, of course, to his canvases. “It is the sentimental Romantic in him” I responded. I personally don’t mind the sizes and in fact I wish I had the space and the funds and the patrons to undertake pieces just as vast. The size is important because it engulfs you, especially if the pieces are larger than the human figure (or at least right about): when the work is smaller than the human figure, the viewer tends to conceive in the back of their minds, even implicitly, that they have control over the object, but when the work is larger than the human figure the exact opposite occurs and the object begins to take us over – we are absorbed into it. What Kiefer’s work says to me is as follows: absorption int he ruins of history, not only of a history of the recent past – the history that ends history – but the ruins of our own histories, our own fleeting events.
Anselm is searching for heaven in the ruins. To me that seems a better place than any other. If we look for it we will find it, just as easily as if we don’t look it won’t be there. You see, it depends solely upon us. That is the only message. The affirmation of beauty even among the catastrophe, precisely because we are living upon catastrophe after catastrophe, and to embrace our lot, not out of a willful lust to see the destruction it brings in its wake, but precisely to hold out those fleeting moments that pull us in with the profundity of the eternal.